The Prey is a trim and exciting beach-read of a movie—silly and formulaic, but executed with so much confidence that you can’t help but applaud the filmmakers’ moxie. It’s essentially a neo-noir about a wrong man on the run from the police to clear his name, overstuffed with incidents and asides from seemingly every subgenre under the crime-film umbrella. The film should be a hopelessly convoluted slog, but director Eric Valette has a gift for maintaining a pop-narrative momentum that draws you in, and there are dashes of legitimate wit and perversity on display.
The wrong man in this case is Franck Adrien (Albert Dupontel) and he’s having a run of luck that’s phenomenally shitty even by the standards of the crime-movie antihero. Franck’s in prison for pulling off a bank heist with a requisite collection of amoral psychopaths, and the money’s still floating around somewhere on the outside while the whole gang’s in the can. Franck’s almost due for release, and some of his goons are pursuing alarming forms of high-pressure persuasion to ensure that he gives them the loot. For about 20 minutes, The Prey is a well-staged but typical enough prison movie about a decentish hood looking to quietly serve his time and return to his gorgeous wife, Anna (Caterina Murino), and cutie-pie daughter, Amélie (Jaïa Caltagirone), but the film soon takes a jarring narrative turn that pits Franck against a diabolically only-in-the-movies serial killer, as well as a task force compromised of police officers whose personalities are equally defined by every genre film ever made. (It’s a mark of the film’s efficiency that one character played by Alice Taglioni manages to simultaneously embody at least three iconic movie cops, including the One Cop Who Believes the Good Guy, The Lone Female Cop Who Happens to Look Great in a Tight Pair of Jeans, and, of course, The Cop Who Plays By Her Own Rules.)
Holding everything together is Dupontel, who gives a compellingly urgent and physical performance; his Franck looks a little like Robert De Niro’s bibilically evil version of Max Cady, but you can see in his eyes the sensitive tormented male that lurks underneath. There are also at least three remarkably intense sequences, including a prolonged prison fight that echoes similar fisticuffs scenes from They Live and Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, as well as a terrifying foot chase on a freeway against oncoming traffic. The Prey doesn’t have the obsessive pull of a great thriller, as it’s undeniably an impersonal toy, but it’s a hell of a toy.